At the beginning of the 20th century to escape the tourists and the mafia, artists from Montmartre on the right bank began to migrate to Montparnasses on the left bank. The opening of a metro line in 1910 between Montmartre and Montparnasses hastened the departure of many artists from the right bank, but also kept the connection between the two artists’ enclaves.
In the 17th century, Montparnasses, named for the home of the god of poetry, Apollo, was a ruble heap that attracted university poets. The following two centuries the area was ignored by most artists. Chateaubriand and Balzac, who because of their financial woes, did choose to live in this cheap neighborhood. Today, Rodin’s Balzac overlooks the intersection of Blvd. du Montparnasses, Blvd. Raspail, and Rue Delambre in Montparnasses. The intersection is known as Place Pablo Picasso and can be accessed from the No. 4 metro line at the Vavin station (named for Alexi Vavin, 1792-1865, a statesman who opposed the coup of Napoleon III). Here in the heart of artistic Montparnasses several eateries dominate the corners. At these cafés, writers met, wrote, and explored ideas and tourists swarmed to get a glimpse of them in the 1920s.
Across the street on the sunny right-hand corner of Blvd. du Montparnasses is the La Rotunde café and restaurant. This establishment, started as a tiny workman’s bar in 1904, was the artistic hub of Montparnasses. After the war, the expats took over. In 1922, Hemingway, reporting for the Toronto Star, wrote of this place:
The scum of Greenwich Village, New York, has been skimmed off and deposited in large ladles on that section of Pairs adjacent to the Café Rotonde…. They are nearly all loafers expending the energy that an artist puts into his creative work about what they are going to do and condemning the work of all artists who have gained any degree of recognition….The artists of Paris who are turning out creditable work resent and loathe the Rotonde crowd.Ten years later, Henry Miller used this café to pursue Anaïs Nin and write his several novels that would be banned in America for two decades.
A few doors down from the La Rotonde is LeSeléct, which opened in 1925. It is remembered for its Welsh Rarebit, which is mentioned in several stories, including Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. In July 1929, Hart Crane got roaring drunk at LeSeléct, slugged a waiter and a cop and tangled with several lawmen until they knocked him cold and dragged him feet first to jail. Such behavior was not exclusive to this café.
Especially with the Americans, the most popular café was the Dingo, which opened in 1923. Located around the corner from Le Dôme on rue Delambre, the Dingo was where, in 1925, Hemingway was drinking with two friends when F. Scott Fitzgerald walked in and introduced himself. Fitzgerald had just published The Great Gatsby. Though the two authors were often together, in Hemingway’s account of the period in A Moveable Feast, he trashed Fitzgerald. Hemingway described Fitzgerald: “his chin was well built and he had good ears and a handsome, almost beautiful, unmarked nose….The mouth worried you until you knew him and then it worried you more.” The Dingo became a Venetian restaurant that did not retain the name.
The gathering places are now pricey restaurants for those with expense accounts. (A vegetable entrée and a glass of wine - $50!) Some still have an outdoor café where one can sip a favorite beverage, open a notebook, and write or sketch while imaging being an Americans in Paris in the 1920s. When the Americans of the 1920s gathered on this corner, they mingled with French, Spanish, Russian, German, Japanese, and other artists from around the world. Gertrude Stein’s salon and other gatherings also brought this diverse community together. What did the Parisians and other émigrés think of the Americans? In John Richardson’s Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932, Fitzgerald and Hemingway, though considered talented, were often described as buffoonish and outrageous, behavior often fueled by alcohol. For Hemingway, the out-of-control Zelda Fitzgerald, who loathed Hemingway—the feeling was mutual—and her ever protective husband Scott were tolerated but unwelcome companions. They and other American artists were acquainted with influential Americans who increasingly became financial patrons and buyers of non-Americans works. These Americans included Gerald and Sara Murphy, John dos Passos, Archibald MacLeish and, of course, Gertrude Stein.
One of the frustrations in David McCullough’s The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris was the chronicle ended around 1900, though Americans in Paris during the post WWI Jazz Age provided Americans with wonderful, once daring literature. After WWII, another wave of Americans made the Greater Journey including Russell Wright and James Baldwin, who came to discuss existentialism and politics as well as write about their experiences at home.
|Shakespeare & Co.|
by Diane Rafuse
Valeris Bougault. Paris Montparnasses: The Heyday of Modern Art 1910-1940. Terrail. Paris. 1997.
David Burke. Writers in Paris: Literary Lives in the City of Light. Counterpoint. Berkeley CA.2008.
David McCullough. The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris. Simon & Schuster. 2011.
John Richardson. Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932. Alfred A. Knopf. 2007.
Midnight in Paris. 2011. Director Woody Allen.